Fred Allen was one of a kind. A star in the early days of radio, fresh from his success
in vaudeville (along with his wife, Portland Hoffa), Allen developed a reputation
as one of radio's wittiest comedians, always ready with a quip or ad-lib.
Allen is best known for two radio institutions; the first was his long-running feud with his pal Jack Benny. One Sunday night, Allen off-handedly criticized Benny's violin playing. Benny heard the jibe, responded later that night on his show, and they were off and running. For a decade or more, they kept the feud alive while appearing on each other's shows; those shows were often among the best of their respective seasons.
The other thing Allen is best-remembered for is Allen's Alley. This recurring segment
began in the early '40s; Allen and Portland would walk down the street, knocking on
each door and chatting with the colorful characters.
Fred Allen remained at the top of the ratings for a number of years, but in the late '40s ABC programmed the game show Stop the Music against him, and it was all downhill from there. Stop the Music became a phenomenon, and despite Allen's attempts to mock and satirize the show, Allen left the air at the end of the 1948-49 season. There are also those who say that Allen's topical humor was going out of fashion, which may have had something to do with the decline.
Because of the topical nature of Allen's humor, his shows require a little more effort to appreciate today, but gaining a little bit of familiarity with the events of the mid-20th century allows one to fully appreciate Fred Allen's humor, some of the sharpest and wittiest ever.